The movement is often termed simply "traditionalism", and its adherents usually call themselves "traditional Catholics", but it is distinct from a general respect for the Church's traditions or a simple inclination towards conservatism. For example, Pope Benedict XVI is undoubtedly a "traditionalist" in the broad sense of the word, but he is mistrusted by many ultra-traditionalists because he generally supports the reforms associated with the Second Vatican Council. I will therefore use the stronger term "ultra-traditionalism" in this post, even though it may seem somewhat pejorative.
1. The doctrinal background
Catholic ultra-traditionalism emerged as a movement in the 1970s. As indicated, it opposed the changes in the Church associated with the Second Vatican Council (which is generally referred to as "Vatican II"). The motive force behind the movement was the disconnect between the profoundly conservative doctrines taught by the Catholic Church in the 19th and early 20th centuries - and, more broadly, since the Counter-Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries - and the more pragmatic and progressive interpretation of Catholicism that has largely prevailed since Vatican II.
Vatican II in session
Of course, this divide is not absolute. There are plenty of conservative mainstream Catholics - most notably, the present pope and his predecessor - who have sought to interpret post-Vatican II teachings as being consistent with and subject to the Church's earlier tradition. This is what Benedict XVI has famously called the "hermeneutic of continuity". However, there is no shortage of Catholics who favour an alternative interpretation of Vatican II and its aftermath, one of "discontinuity and rupture" (to use Benedict's words again). Most of these are liberal Catholics who welcome the modernisation of the Church's teachings and wish to extend it, but a few are archconservatives who deplore and reject it, and it is these latter people who make up the ultra-traditionalist camp.
The great symbol of the Vatican II changes is the revision of the liturgy of the Mass. The traditional Mass - which is generally known as the "Tridentine Mass", or, more recently, the "Extraordinary Form" - was a complex and somewhat esoteric ceremony celebrated entirely in Latin. Vatican II ordered a revision of the rite, and from the mid-1960s onwards changes began to be made. Eventually, in 1969, the entire liturgy was replaced with the rite in general use today (the "Ordinary Form" or "Mass of Paul VI"). The modern-day liturgy is generally similar in its structure and texts to the older one, but there have been major changes, notably the introduction of vernacular languages and the physical orientation of the priest (he used to face the altar with his back to the congregation; now the altar has been moved forward and he usually faces the congregation from behind it).
The Tridentine Mass
The Mass is a good symbol for the political conflicts in the Church. Liberals have wholeheartedly embraced the revised Mass liturgy and feel no love for the old Tridentine Mass. Mainstream conservatives like Benedict XVI admire and cherish the older form, but they by no means reject the modern rite. Ultra-traditionalists will accept only the Tridentine Mass as a fully appropriate expression of Catholic worship: they regard the Mass of Paul VI as being as best deficient and at worst objectively sacrilegious (or even invalid as a sacrament, so that the altar bread remains bread and does not become the body of Jesus Christ).
Symbolic though it may be, however, the traditional Mass is only the symbol of the ultra-traditionalists' agenda. Their deeper theological concerns are centred around two doctrinal shifts associated with Vatican II. The first is the shift from the classical conception of the Catholic Church as the one true church of Jesus Christ, excluding heretics and infidels, to a broader conception in which Protestants, non-Christians and non-believers are considered to enjoy a partial or imperfect communion with Catholics and the Church. The second is the shift from the Counter-Enlightenment doctrine, which I have discussed in other posts, that the State should endorse and protect the Church and should implement her teachings in its civil law (while tolerating, where strictly necessary, the existence of other churches and religions) to a stance which essentially accepts freedom of religion as an inherent civil right and limits the Church's political agenda to "moral" issues.
I don't propose to say more at this point about the doctrinal issues at stake, except that the battle lines follow the divisions which I have referred to above. Liberals welcome the opening to people of other churches and faiths, and to a large extent accept the modern secular State. Mainstream conservatives are more wary of diluting the special claims of the Catholic Church and more hostile to secularism in public life, but they broadly accept the Vatican II changes and do not seek to turn the clock back to the 19th century. Ultra-traditionalists, however, flatly reject modern ecumenism and secularism, enthusiastically endorsing the mostly-forgotten teachings of the Counter-Enlightenment.
2. Types of ultra-traditionalists
Ultra-traditionalists come in roughly three flavours:
Officially approved ultra-traditionalists - These are Catholics in good standing who maintain their membership of the Church while disapproving of the post-Vatican II changes. If they are priests, they may be members of one of the various papally-approved religious orders which celebrate only the Tridentine Mass. This category shades into that of mainstream conservatives of the Benedict XVI variety, depending on how strongly and comprehensively they reject the Vatican II reform agenda.
Officially disapproved ultra-traditionalists - These are Catholics whose opposition to the Vatican II changes has led them to break with the main body of the Church (or, indeed, to be expelled from it), though they continue to give nominal allegiance to the Pope and the official Church hierarchy. The most famous organisation in this category is the late Archbishop Lefebvre's Society of St Pius X, of which more later.
Sedevacantists - These are essentially a more hardboiled version of the previous category (though relations between the two groups are often rather cool). I discuss them further below.
3. Politics and conspiracies
In some countries (notably France) ultra-traditionalists are not merely committed to traditional Catholic doctrine - they have quite a specific political agenda as well. For example, while Counter-Enlightenment Catholic teaching is in principle compatible with the establishment of a democratic republic (provided that said republic adheres to the Catholic faith), many French ultra-traditionalists reject the French Republic altogether and wish to see the restoration of the old Bourbon monarchy. This is in spite of the fact that the Church itself came round to the Republic long before Vatican II and attempted to reconcile French Catholics with it. As we shall see, the French royalist légitimistes included the founding father of ultra-traditionalism, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
This political perspective is sometimes difficult for Catholics from English-speaking countries to get their heads around. For example, while Irish ultra-traditionalists certainly campaigned for the Irish state to clasp the Church more closely to her bosom, it didn't occur to any of them to try to resurrect a defunct pre-Enlightenment monarchy. Most of them were content to accept the democratic system that they had inherited from the British, even if they admired Franco and Salazar from a safe distance. Something similar can be said about the clash of Counter-Enlightenment Catholic values with conservative American culture, with its reverence for the constitution and republican governance. This clash led one commentator to speak in the 1990s of a "contention between American patriots and European fascists [that] is ripping the Society [of St Pius X] apart", though his fears seem to have turned out to be overblown.
Conspiracy theories are quite widespread in ultra-traditionalist circles. Some of these relate to the Freemasons, and they can be ascribed to a large extent to the fact that successive popes accepted the idea that the Masons and other secret societies were malign in nature and were conspiring against the Church and the traditional institutions of the State. Such fears were not allayed by credible reports that the architect of the liturgical reform, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, was a secret Freemason (it is said that this is why Pope Paul VI suddenly exiled him from the Vatican in 1976 to an obscure diplomatic post in Iran). There is also a disturbing strain of antisemitism among some ultra-traditionalists. The now notorious British bishop Richard Williamson is a striking example of this, though his views are a little extreme even by ultra-traditionalist standards. Other ultra-traditionalists are influenced by the writings of the eccentric Irish priest Fr Denis Fahey, whose conspiracist writings I have reviewed elsewhere.
4. Archbishop Lefebvre and other leading ultra-traditionalists
The most famous early leader of the ultra-traditionalist movement was a Frenchman, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
Lefebvre's life story is quite well known. It was originally told in English by the British ultra-traditionalist writer Michael Davies (Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre, available online), and further biographical works have been published by Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais (Marcel Lefebvre) and Prof. David Allan White (The Horn of the Unicorn). Lefebvre spent most of his career as a missionary in Africa and became Archbishop of Dakar in 1955. He was a respected churchmen in those days, and it was said that he would have been a candidate for the cardinal's hat if his patron Pope Pius XII hadn't died in 1958. However, he did have the misfortune to make an enemy of a curial official named Mgr Giovanni Battista Montini. He would later be better known as Pope Paul VI.
In 1962, Lefebvre became the Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers, a major Catholic religious order. He attended Vatican II and took a leading role in organising the Coetus Internationalis Patrum, the Council's conservative bloc (as distinct from the "Rhine Fathers", the liberal bloc). In 1968, he resigned his position with the Holy Ghost Fathers and settled down to retirement in decent obscurity in Rome. However, he was sought out by conservative seminarians who wanted a true blue traditional Catholic formation, and so in 1970 he established the Priestly Fraternity of St Pius X, which is universally known in the English-speaking world as the SSPX.
The SSPX was originally an official organisation of the Catholic Church, canonically erected in the diocese of Sion in Switzerland. However, it had powerful enemies who were opposed to Lefebvre's archconservative agenda. Prominent among these were the French diocesan bishops and their ally in Rome, Cardinal Jean Villot, who had the ear of Paul VI. Some politicking ensued, Lefebvre was summoned to Rome to explain himself, and eventually, in 1975, the SSPX was formally dissolved by the Bishop of Sion. Lefebvre's legal appeals against the dissolution were rejected, so he decided that he would simply refuse to recognise it. His supporters would always maintain that the dissolution was irregular, and that the Church authorities had not followed the proper procedures laid down in the Code of Canon Law.
There matters essentially rested until 1988. There was a brief thaw when Lefebvre's old enemy Paul VI died and the more conservative John Paul II took over, but Lefebvre was too rich for even John Paul's blood. Stalemate set in. The SSPX continued to function and to churn out priests to serve the ultra-traditionalist faithful, while the Vatican refused to recognise them as legitimate Catholic pastors.
A Catholic religious community cannot function without a bishop, since orthodox Catholic theology holds that only a bishop can ordain new priests (and consecrate new bishops) to ensure that the sacramental life of the community continues. Consecrating a bishop without the approval of the Pope is a big deal, and consecrating a bishop against the express will of the Pope is an even bigger deal. In the 70s, Lefebvre had set his face against consecrating his own bishops to succeed him, but by the mid-1980s (by which time he was in his 80s) he had come round to the idea. He initially sought to obtain approval for the consecrations from Rome, and in May 1988 he signed an agreement with Cardinal Ratzinger under which the SSPX would be re-integrated with the main body of the Church. However, Lefebvre quickly reneged on the agreement and proceeded to carry out the consecrations on 30 June 1988, despite an express order from Pope John Paul II not to do so. One of the new bishops was our friend Fr Richard Williamson.
The Vatican doesn't easily forgive this sort of thing, and it declared the following day that Lefebvre and his four new bishops had incurred excommunication for carrying out a schismatic act. Lefebvre's name was deleted from the list of bishops in the Annuario Pontificio. He was no longer a Roman Catholic. Not until 2009 did the Vatican unenthusiastically lift the excommunications of the surviving bishops (without, however, recognising the legitimacy of the SSPX as an institution) - an act that was scurrilously portrayed by some journalists as implying that the Pope endorsed or approved of the organisation. By this time, Lefebvre had gone to explain his actions to his maker, having died in 1991.
It is said that Lefebvre was a virtuous and saintly man. It is also said that he was politically cunning and that he was a terrible judge of character (that would certainly explain Williamson's bishopric). He is criticised for speaking approvingly of right-wing dictators like Franco and Pinochet, and he palled around with various parts of the European extreme right. To be fair, though, he was never quite convinced that Jean-Marie le Pen was a good Catholic boy, and one should hesitate to label as a fascist a man whose father died in a Nazi concentration camp.
Lefebvre was not the only church leader who came to reject the post-Vatican II reforms. Other naysayers included:
• Bishop Antônio de Castro Mayer of the diocese of Campos, Brazil, a friend and collaborator of Lefebvre who assisted him with the 1988 episcopal consecrations.
• Archbishop Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục, a brother of former South Vietnamese dictator Ngô Đình Diệm, who became involved with the sedevacantist movement (see below).
• Bishop Salvador Lazo of San Fernando in the Philippines, who came to support the SSPX.
• Bishop John Bosco Manat Chuabsamai of Thailand, who also supports the SSPX.
• Bishop Alfredo F. Méndez of Puerto Rico, who worked sporadically and unenthusiastically with ultra-traditionalist priests.
• Bishop Richard Ackerman, an American friend of Lefebvre, who is said to have had ultra-traditionalist leanings.
There is reason to believe that these churchmen would have been joined by Cardinal Michael Browne of Ireland (d. 1971) and Bishop Blasius Kurz of Germany (d. 1973) if they had lived longer. It is also said that several Eastern Orthodox bishops have expressed an interest in ultra-traditionalist Roman Catholicism, and one of them, Bishop Yuri Yurchik of Ukraine, is reported by some sources to have converted (though Yurchik's own branch of Orthodoxy seems to have been somewhat un-orthodox in nature).
If Catholic doctrine holds that the Pope is infallible, what are we to make of the fact that successive popes have endorsed the post-Vatican II changes? The likes of the SSPX would answer by saying that papal pronouncements are infallible only in rare and specific circumstances, but there are some bolder spirits on the further reaches of the ultra-traditionalist right who would claim that the post-Vatican II popes have not actually been true popes at all. After all, they've taught heresies, right? And a heretic can't be a Catholic, let alone a Pope.
The thesis that the post-Conciliar popes have not been true Catholic popes is known as "sedevacantism", from the Latin sede vacante, a phrase which is used when the Holy See is vacant after the death or abdication of a pope. A few ultra-traditionalists adhere to a soft version of sedevacantism called "sedeprivationism", which was invented by the eminent Dominican theologian Mgr Michel Louis Guérard des Lauriers and holds that the Pope is a true pope in one sense but not in another.
Sedevacantism sometimes gets mixed up with other conspiracy theories. Some say that Pope John XXIII, whose idea Vatican II was, was ineligible for election to the papacy because he had secretly become a Freemason. Others say that the archconservative Cardinal Giuseppe Siri was elected pope in either 1958 or 1963, but that he immediately abdicated in the face of hostile pressure from liberal cardinals. His abdication would have been invalid by virtue of having been procured by duress, and he would have secretly continued to occupy the papacy until his death in 1989.
There is some tension between sedevacantists and other ultra-traditionalists, though their theological views are not that different from those of SSPX types. Sedevacantists sometimes have an ambivalent view of Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers, and Mel Gibson's deranged sedevacantist father has suggested that Lefebvre may himself have been a secret Freemason.
Amazingly, even this is not enough for some. Some Catholics who can no longer get enough of a high from mere sedevacantism have taken the next natural step and attempted to elect replacement popes of their own. It is a terrible thing to be driven mad by the remorselessness of one's own logic.